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School consolidation controversy

Merging schools has long been a hot-button issue in the Tri-State

Merging schools has long been a hot-button issue in the Tri-State

March 15, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

SHENANDOAH JUNCTION, W.Va. - As juniors at Shepherds-town (W.Va.) High School in 1972, Heather Myers and her friends wanted to be able to graduate from their school the following year.

But that didn't happen. Jefferson County School officials authorized and oversaw the construction of one, consolidated high school instead of renovating the existing three high schools in the county.

"A lot of us, we had the opportunities to order our class rings from the old high school early, rather than from the new one, so that we could keep that identity of where we were," said Myers, 48, of Martinsburg, W.Va.

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Consolidating Shepherdstown, Harpers Ferry and Charles Town high schools into the new Jefferson High School was a controversial issue in the communities, Jefferson County Schools Associate Superintendent Beverly Hughes said. Hughes taught at Shepherdstown during its last year as a high school.

It's approximately 32 years later and school consolidation still is a hot-button issue in the Tri-State area as governments consider the efficiencies bigger schools can provide and the savings that can be realized by not renovating aging schools, Tri-State area education officials said.

Washington County is planning to close Conococheague and Maugansville elementary schools and open a new elementary school next to the existing Maugansville school as early as the 2006-07 school year, Board of Education President W. Edward Forrest said.

The Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District is researching the possibility of consolidating elementary schools, said Eric Michael, assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction. With 18 elementary schools, the school district has more elementary schools than any other district in the state other than Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, he said.

"It's a very hot debate," Michael said.

Michael and Forrest said both of their school districts have a long tradition of neighborhood schools, but school system officials need to consider the more efficient and economical programs that can be offered by consolidating some schools.

Forrest said many parents, including himself, have sent their children to the same school they attended and maybe even to the same teachers, so there is a personal connection.

"You have fond memories and good experiences at a school. That's what you want for your child," he said.

Many people think bigger schools translate into less individual attention for students, Michael and Forrest said.

"I think that's what upsets people. They view it as people putting dollars ahead of kids and that's not always the case," Forrest said.

As a parent, Forrest said he understands that parents don't want their child to be just a face in the crowd, but neither do school officials.

The reality school system officials face is the cost of renovating aging school buildings and the need to provide more comprehensive services to students within a growing county while there is less funding available, statewide, for school construction projects, Forrest said.

Whereas a small school probably has part-time physical education and art teachers, a larger school has full-time positions, he said.

That makes programming easier to schedule and provides more opportunities for interaction between those teachers and students, Forrest said.

Myers and Steve LaRue said the reality in 1972 of moving into a new high school that replaced three older schools didn't seem like the big deal many people thought it would be.

One advantage they had was that by merging the three schools into one, they stayed with their friends.

Steve Roth, 48, who lives near Charles Town, W.Va., said he looked forward to the schools merging because it would make the sports program stronger by drawing athletes from a larger student pool.

LaRue, 48, of Leitersburg, said part of the sales pitch to the community concerning the merger was that the larger school would be able to offer courses not available at the smaller schools.

"That offered a world of opportunity for me," Myers said.

But the merger also eliminated a great rivalry between the smaller Shepherdstown and Harpers Ferry high schools, Myers and LaRue said.

"There always was concern about merging the high schools. I think it's just natural," LaRue said. "People basically resist change."

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